The Exiled Duchess

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s eldest daughter Matilda was born in 1156, and was likely named after her legendary paternal grandmother the Empress Matilda. She faced the fate of many princesses and was married off young to support her family’s political manoeuvrings.

13th century depiction of Matilda of England, Duchess of Saxony and Bavaria.

Matilda wed Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria on the 1st February 1168, when she would have been around 12 years old. He was 27 years older than his young bride, and had previously been married to Clementia of Zähringen but their marriage was annulled in 1162. It must have been incredibly daunting for Matilda, travelling to a new land at a young age leaving behind all that was familiar. Yet she seemed to embrace her new life, and interesting side note was responsible for spreading the cult of Thomas Becket in her duchies. This is an interesting decision when you consider that Becket has been a friend turned foe of her father. Henry II was indirectly responsible for the rogue Archbishop’s murder, and it was one of the biggest disasters of his reign. However, Henry himself dedicated himself to the cult and his daughters seemed to followed suit.

Matilda and Henry would go on to have quite a few children, although an exact amount is not agreed upon by historians. We do know for sure though that their first child Richenza was born in 1172. Childbirth is a daunting prospect even in the 21st century, but during the 12th century was fraught with potential disaster due to the lack of medical knowledge and resources. There was also a lot of pressure on women to produce sons. Henry was away on pilgrimage at the time of Richenza’s birth, but thankfully Matilda and their child both survived. Matilda would later have (at least) four more children: Henry, Lothair, Otto and William.

Coronation of Henry the Lion and Matilda, from the Gospels of Henry the Lion

Despite the opulence of life as a Duchess, serious issues arose in 1180 when her husband’s enemies came calling. Henry was charged with disturbing the peace and after refusing to go to court was tried anyway and his lands were confiscated. This was a disaster for Matilda, now a duchess with no duchy. Henry fought back but was beaten and forced into exile. We don’t quite know what Matilda’s position was at this point but, whether it was forced or voluntary, she did go in to exile with her husband. Thankfully Matilda had the Angevin clan to call upon in her hour of need, and the young family stayed in her parents’ domains until 1185 when they returned to Saxony, partly in thanks to her father’s mediation.

A few years later in 1189 after an ultimatum from the Holy Roman Emperor her husband was exiled (again) when he refused to go on the Third Crusade. Interestingly this time around Matilda stayed in her husband’s domains. Sadly, though she died that same year at the aged 33. She was described by contemporary chronicler Arnold of Lübeck as “a most religious woman, whose memory is of note before God and man, whose good works and sweet disposition enhanced the lustre of the long royal line whence she sprang; a woman of profound piety, of wondrous sympathy for the afflicted, a great distributor of alms, and, being given to prayers, a most devoted frequenter of masses, of which she had many sung”.

What do you make of the exiled Duchess? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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ODNB: Matilda, Duchess of Saxony by Kate Norgate, revised by Timothy Reuter

Matilda, Duchess of Saxony (1168-89) and the Cult of Thomas Becket: A Legacy of Appropriation by Colette Bowie from The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, C.1170-c.1220 edited volume.

Britannica, Henry the Lion:

Atlas Obscura, Henry the Lion Monument:

Wikipedia: Matilda of England, Henry the Lion, Clementia of Zähringen,

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